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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 09/14/2014

You have to like Peter. I said last week that I sometimes have issues with Paul, but you have to like Peter or at least you have to like how he is portrayed in the gospels. If you think about the role Peter plays, it’s like he’s a foil for Jesus as he plays the role of everyman or everywoman, representing all of us as he impulsively says the wrong things, asks the wrong questions, nodding his head like he knows what’s going on, but most often missing the point. It might not be the role Peter wanted to play in the gospel narrative, but it’s an important one in terms of how we’re able to identify with him and it’s important in moving the story along providing Jesus with opportunities to clarify what his life and ministry were all about. When it comes to the gospels we could nominate Peter for best supporting actor. It wasn’t necessarily the role of a lifetime, but someone had to play it and Peter played it well.

Jesus spent a lot of time teaching both his disciples and the crowds that followed him about the alternative that he represented, the alternative that following him represented. It was an alternative and a kingdom based on things like love your neighbor with the neighborhood being pretty big, including even your enemies. Jesus’ kingdom was based on forgiveness rather than retaliation, mercy rather than punishment, self denial rather than self promotion, grace rather than you get what you deserve, all things that ran contrary to the ways of the world, all things that still run contrary to the ways of the world.

This world still runs on looking out for number one and trying to get ahead of the other guy. We keep score, we compare, we judge each other. We value the things of this world, wealth and possessions and status. Jesus preached against all that, and Peter nodded his head in agreement. But Peter was everyman, he represented human nature and he usually responded according to that nature and it’s human nature that hasn’t really changed. The world we live in is very different from the world of the Bible but human nature is still pretty much the same and that’s why we can relate to a character like Peter.

Today’s gospel follows right after the verses from last week which talked about what to do when there was conflict in the church, when one member felt they had been wronged by another. The intent of the procedure was to settle the difference so that both parties would remain part of the community. So again, Jesus was talking about forgiveness and grace, Peter nodded his head like he understood and then he asked the wrong question, a question from the world of keeping score. “How many times do I have to forgive someone,” he asks, “as many as seven times?” Now, no doubt score keeping Peter thought he was going to be applauded for his willingness to forgive seven times. But Jesus responded with “Not seven, but seventy-seven” or some translations say seventy times seven which would be 490 times. Biblical commentators all agree that whatever the number is, the intent is that it’s absurdly high. The message to Peter is to stop counting. Forgiveness isn’t about keeping track so you can self righteously pat yourself on the back.

The parable of the unforgiving servant that follows leads even further into the realm of the absurd starting with the amount the first slave owed to the king. Ten thousand talents represented the wages for one hundred million working days. If you want to do the math that’s well over two hundred thousand years assuming one worked every day. It’s a ridiculous amount, a debt that could not possibly be accumulated never mind being impossible to pay off. So it’s pretty clear that Jesus wasn’t crafting a realistic story here but was trying to make a point about forgiveness.

Despite the enormity of the debt, the king forgives it. He doesn’t just reduce it, he doesn’t let the slave buy some time, he forgives the entire debt so the slate is clean, the slave can start over. In starting over though the slave quickly forgets the unlimited grace extended to him by the king and he’s right back into the world of keeping score and “I want what I’m owed” a world where undeserved grace and forgiveness doesn’t happen. So he demanded payment from a fellow slave who owed him a hundred denarii, not an insignificant amount but a drop in the bucket compared to that for which he himself was forgiven.

When other slaves got wind of what was going on, they reported back to the king, who then reversed his earlier decision and demanded that slave number one be tortured until he had paid his debt. The parable ends with the frightening statement, “So my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Do you think Peter got the message? The rebuke Jesus offers in this parable is more subtle than the “Get behind me Satan” rebuke of a couple of weeks ago, but it’s still a rebuke that had to leave Peter a little humiliated, at least for the moment. The parable does raise some questions though, especially when paired with the “How many times must I forgive” question. Jesus initial answer to Peter suggested unlimited forgiveness; the first part of the parable where the huge debt was excused suggested unlimited forgiveness; but the end of the parable seems to go in a different direction when the king reverses his decision and cancels his forgiveness. That suggests limits.

In dealing with parables though, you have to keep in mind that they don’t provide full blown, comprehensive theologies that neatly tie everything up and answer all questions. Jesus usually told parables in response to specific questions he was asked so you do have to be careful in how much you read into things. This part of Matthew has to do with the need for forgiveness in order to keep the community together. The emphasis then is not so much on our need for God’s forgiveness as it is on our need to forgive each other. That’s what the disciplinary procedure in last week’s gospel was about, that’s what Peter’s question today is about. So in this case, to read the parable as an allegory in which the king represent God and thus make it about the limits or lack of limits on God’s forgiveness is probably not the best interpretation. That wasn’t the presenting question.

What Jesus was trying to impress on Peter and by extension the rest of us, is our need to forgive each other. Forgiveness is integral to the kingdom he proclaimed and in this parable he uses the shock value image of the angry king to make that clear. We do need to know about the forgiveness Jesus offers, but we also need to know how important our forgiveness of each other is to him for the sake of the kingdom and it’s revelation among us. It’s important for the one being forgiven but it’s just as important for the one extending forgiveness.

I’m sure we all know of situations where it hasn’t happened, when, like Peter we want to place limits on forgiveness. We know of situations, especially within families where someone can’t get past a perceived hurt, the years go by and the divide gets wider, forgiveness gets harder and less likely and nothing is gained. There are lots of other examples too, like the two former prisoners of war, talking years later and one asks the other “Have you forgiven your captors yet?” “I’ll never do that,” the second one answered. “Then they still have you in prison, don’t they?” the first one replied.

Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. We pray it all the time and the question comes up, “Does that mean God only forgives us as well as we forgive others?” I don’t think so, I hope not anyway, because that would leave us all in trouble or at least it would leave me in trouble. My understanding of God’s forgiveness is that our sin is not just forgiven, it’s forgotten, it’s gone, the slate really is clean. I don’t know about you but I can sometimes forgive, but it’s hard to forget. I’ve got slates where I can still see the smudges.

Like the parable, I think “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” is another reminder of how important our forgiveness of each other is to God. It doesn’t mean that God’s forgiveness is withheld or reversed based on what we do, but it does mean that God is saddened by our inability to forgive.

You gotta like Peter though, for asking the question about how many times, for playing the role of the foil so that we don’t have to play it. We might not like Jesus’ response anymore than Peter did. Our inability to always forgive as we would like to be forgiven might leave us feeling a little humbled and humiliated too; but as always, despite our difficulty in actually doing what he says, we know that Jesus is right.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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